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Collective Story Harvest

Impact Storytelling


This storytelling activity brings together a group of people to listen to a story and explore the themes within the story. It can be applied in a range of settings including collective learning, team building, and taking stock during a project’s lifecycle. It requires the facilitator to identify storytellers in advance and guide them in preparing their stories.

What is a Collective Story Harvest?

A Collective Story Harvest enables us  to deeply connect with and learn from the experience in our community, team or organization. A number of stories are shared in small groups and we work with a set of specific themes to harvest each story. Each of the participants either harvests one of the themes or is a witness during the storytelling and then shares back to the storyteller  and small group. Finally, we come together to converge our learnings across all the stories. 

What are the benefits of a Collective Story Harvest process?

Bringing stories to life through the Collective Story Harvest process is a way of increasing the learning in our workplaces, communities and more. As a storytelling process, it builds our capacity for targeted listening and group learning, tracking many different themes of a story simultaneously. This is an ideal way to surface many insights, innovations, and ah-has that exist  beneath the surface of our stories and to take our learning to a deeper level – both for those telling and listening. As a participatory process it creates a strong connection and shared understanding for those involved. Other groups who have used this process have shared that storytellers spoke of the insight and  learning they received from their group. The listeners spoke of the insights gained for their own work and life. There was a deeper level of learning that happened where participants were able  to apply the learning directly into their work.

What are the themes?

A theme is like a lens to look at the story through. Each lens gives a different ability to focus our collective learning. To determine the themes, we ask the question “What is it that we most want to learn from the stories?” These themes will be used by listeners (wisdom catchers) to specifically listen for while the storyteller shares their story.

Imagine that as you tell your story that one person is listening for the pivotal moments and breakthroughs, and another person is listening for insights on intergenerational collaboration, and another person is listening for elements of leadership. Some people won’t have a specific theme and will just be listening to the whole of the story. By having  different people “wisdom catching” these various themes build our capacity for listening and learning from the story is deepened. Storytellers don’t need to worry about speaking to the themes; the wisdom catchers use the themes.

What is the Collective Story Harvest good for?

There are many ways to apply collective story harvesting:

  • Systemic story harvest for applied learning: A group focuses on one systemic story to harvest the learnings and apply them to its own work. This works equally well for a practice group coming together or a working team hearing a story from another organization or system and then applying the learnings to its own practice.

  • Full system team building/strategy session: Harvesting an organization or group’s own story for learning, team building and strategic enhancement. Working with the story in this way brings the group into a collective field of meaning. Vision or mission statements can be enhanced and integrated, strategic plans can be invigorated.

  • Many stories/collective learning: Harvesting a variety of stories simultaneously in small groups, then converging the learning across the full group. A variety of stories are selected that offer different aspects to the group. Participants attend and harvest the story that most interests them. Collective meta learning is harvested by the full group.

  • Creating a new field of work or practice: Telling the story of the wider context up to now in order to set the scene for the new work or practice field to arise and find its potent focus. The process might also be used for systemic evaluation.

  • Taking stock at regular intervals during a project’s life: Good witnessing enables insights about the key pivotal points in a story to surface, as well as helping other emotions to be heard and released. It can also support a story to rise above the personal to reveal insights about the local context it happened in and even the wider systemic context.
  1. Send an invitation to your storytellers. Often when a heartfelt invitation is present, a story will come out in a whole new way and offer new learning to those telling it.
    • A good ratio is one storyteller for every 10 or so listeners. 
    • It is best to have those directly connected to the story and tell it. It can be more interesting to hear from more than one person involved in the story to add depth, richness and a variety of points of view. 
    • The story does not to be an often told one or polished in any form. This process can be used to help polish a story and give storytellers input on how to focus and refine the story to be told to different audiences.
    • Insights to support your storytellers in their preparation: 
        • Think back to the great stories you’ve heard: they have a beginning, middle and an end and usually a challenge at the core of them with the key element of overcoming or grappling with the challenge. The key criteria is that the story must have a breakthrough point or learning within it, although it doesn’t need to  be a success story. It also means your story doesn’t have to be totally completed, rather what is most important is that we can learn from your story. 
        • To prepare as a storyteller, set some time aside to do a bit of writing. Think of your story topic and make some notes along these lines: here’s who I am, here’s who is involved, here is the challenge that faced me, here’s what happened, where and when, here’s where we are now. This is your real story you are telling, not one with made up characters. If there are more than one of you involved in telling this story please work together prior to the session to decide how you will tell your story as a pair.
        • You are welcome to bring your story notes to support you as you tell your story but don’t read your notes. This isn’t a formal or rehearsed presentation (no PowerPoint!), you are sitting around a campfire with your peers telling them your story. This preparation work can simply help you craft your thoughts into a story we can listen and learn from. 

  2. Next, decide on themes you would like to harvest. Ideally this could be agreed with the story holders and listeners, depending on where they want to focus their learning. Take as much time as you need to discuss exactly what you want to get out of this process and what will happen ot the harvest afterwards. You’ll need at least one person harvesting each theme you’ve chosen and more than one can harvest the same theme simultaneously. Here are some examples:
    • Narrative: the thread of the story: the people, events, stages. You might also harvest facts, emotions, and values that are part of the story.
    • Process: what interventions, processes, applications, discoveries happened?
    • Pivotal moments and breakthroughs: what are the pivotal moments or breakthrough moments in this story? What can we learn from them?
    • Leadership: what is the thread of leadership in this story? Where do you notice new forms or practices of leadership?
    • Synchronicity & magic: what happened during this story that pointed to synchronicity and the magic in the middle?
    • Specific theme: harvest the story using a specific theme, like collaborative leadership, the art of participation, intergenerational communication, etc. and see what it tells you.
    • Principles: what principles of working can be gleaned from this story? What did we learn about participatory practices? What principles of complex living systems were reflected in this work? 
    • Questions: what questions arise for me from this story that I can take forward to my work, family or community? 
    • Relationships: working collaboratively and effectively as and with partners. What can we learn from this story about the importance and tending of relationships and how we can work effectively as partners or step into partnership?
    • Overcoming barriers: what barriers were encountered in this story and what can we learn from them?

We’ve found that group harvesting takes time – at least 90 minutes is the minimum time needed. Keeping the storytelling to around 30 minutes is advisable otherwise it is easy for listeners to become overloaded. 

If you are working with a practice team or your purpose is to create maximum learning around a story, then you may want to work on the interplay between  story, harvest and learning for a half day, a day or even longer.

Begin with the whole group together, with access to small circles of chairs for each storyteller in breakout spaces. You may need some small tables for those harvesting onto flipcharts, or they may be fine harvesting onto the floor or using paper colour coded by theme with the theme question printed on them. You’ll need plenty of pens, coloured pens and other art supplies may  also be helpful. 

It’s nice to partner each storyteller with a host to support the small group process; brief the hosts in advance and introduce them to their storytellers before the process begins. Provide a written briefing sheet for the storytelling &  hosting team that outlines the instructions and themes. There will always be someone who doesn’t hear the instructions or needs to refer to them again.

You may want to have recording equipment on hand if you’d like to video the story and the results. It’s also helpful to photograph graphic harvest. 

  • Framing and introduction of the process (15 to 20 minutes): The whole group is together and the host introduces the process. Each storyteller can give a very brief synopsis (1 to 2 minutes maximum) so the participants can choose which story they  want to join and listen.


  • Small group storytelling (30 minutes):  After the introduction the participants move to small circles of chairs where about ten or so participants will join a storyteller. 
    • A host invites the group to go around the circle to briefly introduce themselves, and then will invite volunteers to be the wisdom catchers for the various themes (they will hand out a sheet with the arc questions and space for them to take notes e.g. flip chart or other paper). If more than one person volunteers to listen to a theme that is okay. 
    • Next, the storyteller introduces themselves and tells their story for around 20 minutes.


  • Small group harvesting (30– 50 minutes): After the storyteller is finished telling their  story, the host will invite the wisdom catchers to share back what they heard related to their theme. Example: the person listening for pivotal moments and breakthroughs will share a few key moments they heard in the story that were a pivotal moment or breakthrough, etc. 
    • The host will also ask those who weren’t listening for a theme of any key insights they are taking away from hearing the story. 
    • Lastly the storyteller will be invited to share what gifts or key insights they are taking away from sharing the story. This sharing-back portion will take about 30 to 50 minutes.
    • It’s nice to take a break at this point in the process e.g. 20 minutes.
  • Convergence & harvesting (45-60 minutes): The whole group comes back together to discover what we’ve learned across all the stories and harvest the wisdom. 
    • Invite participants to gather into “like” groups- the storytellers will sit together, the wisdom catchers gather in their theme groups (e.g. everyone who is listening for Synchronicity & Magic sits together, everyone who was listening for Relationships sits together, etc. 
    • Invite the groups to discuss what they discovered through the lens of their theme as it relates to the broader purpose of the Collective Story Harvest, and capture a ‘meta harvest’ to share back with the whole group. You can use a World Café format for this convergence and harvesting process. 

  • Debrief/ Closing the session (5-10 minutes): Thank you to the storytellers and the harvesters. And final remarks about what will happen to the harvest now that it has been heard.